Kenelm

Kenelm

Saint Kenelm (or Cynehelm) was an Anglo-Saxon saint, venerated throughout medieval England, and mentioned in the Canterbury Tales (the Nun's Priest's Tale, 290-299). William of Malmesbury, writing in the XII century, recounted that "there was no place in England to which more pilgrims travelled than to Winchcombe on Kenelm's feast day".

In legend, St. Kenelm was a member of the royal family of Mercia, a boy king and martyr, murdered by an ambitious relative. His body, after being concealed, was discovered by miraculous intervention, and transported by the Monks of Winchcombe to a major shrine. There it remained for several hundred years. The two locales most closely linked to this legend are the Clent Hills, south of Birmingham, identified as the scene of his murder, and the small Gloucestershire town of Winchcombe, near Cheltenham, where his body was interred . The small church of St Kenelm, dating from the 1400s in a village called Kenelstowe, now stands with a handful of houses within the larger village of Romsley in the Clent Hills. For many years, villagers celebrated St. Kenelm's Day (July 17) with a village fair and the ancient custom of "crabbing the parson" - bombarding the unfortunate cleric with a volley of crab apples.

The Legend of St. Kenelm

The earliest account of St Kenelm's legend lies in a manuscript copy from the 12th century at Winchcombe Abbey, which claims to be derived from an account given by a Worcester monk named Wilfin. Other accounts in chronicles are evidently derived from the same source. The story told by that manuscript is summarised below:

In AD 819, King Kenwulph of Mercia died leaving two daughters, Quendryda and Burgenhilda, and a son, a child of seven years old, named Kenelm who was chosen to succeed him. Quendryda envied her little brother and thought that, if he were killed, she might reign as Queen. She therefore conspired with her lover, Askobert, her brother's tutor and guardian, and gave him money, saying, 'Slay my brother for me, that I may reign'. In the Forests of Worcestershire, on a hunting trip, the opportunity arose.

The night before the hunting trip, Kenelm had a dream in which he climbed a large tree decorated with flowers and lanterns. From on high, he saw all four quarters of his kingdom. Three bowed down before him, but the fourth began to chop away at the tree until it fell. Then Kenelm transformed into a white bird and flew away to safety. On waking, the young king related his dream to his nanny, a wise old woman gifted in interpreting dreams. She wept, for she knew that the boy was destined to die.

In the middle of the hunt's first day, young Kenelm, tired and hot, decided to lie down beneath a tree to rest. Askobert began to dig a grave, in preparation for the murder, but the boy suddenly awoke and admonished him, 'You think to kill me here in vain, for I shall be slain in another spot. In token, thereof, see this rod blossom'. As he thrust his stick into the ground, it instantly took root and began to flower. It grew, in years after, to be a great ash tree, which was known as St. Kenelm's Ash. Unperturbed by this turn of events, Askobert took the little King up to the Clent Hills, and as the child began to sing the 'Te Deum', the assassin smote his head clean off and buried him where he fell.

Kenelm's soul rose in the form of a dove carrying a scroll, and flew away to Rome where it dropped the scroll at the feet of the Pope. The message on the scroll read: 'Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born'.

Accordingly, the Pope wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commissioned a party from the Mercian capital, Winchcombe, to seek the body. As they walked, they saw a pillar of light shining over a thicket in Worcestershire and beneath it the body of Kenelm. As it was taken up, a rushing fountain burst out of the ground, and flowed away into a stream, which brought health to anyone who drank from it. The body was then solemnly carried towards Winchcombe, but at the ford called Pyriford over the River Avon, the burial party was met by an armed band from Worcester Abbey who also claimed title to the remains. The dispute was settled as follows: whichever party woke first on the following morning could take the prize. This proved to be the monks from Winchcombe. Despite their agreement, however, they were closely pursued by the Worcester party. Exhausted from their rapid march, they stopped just within sight of Winchcombe Abbey. As they struck their staffs into the ground, a spring burst forth, and this refreshed them so that they were able to press on to the Royal Mercian Abbey at Winchcombe, where the bells sounded and rang without the hand of man.

Then Quendryda asked what all this ringing meant and was told her how her brother's body was brought in procession into the abbey. 'If that be true,' said she, 'may both my eyes fall upon this book', and then both her eyes fell out of her head upon the Psalter she was reading. Soon after both she and her lover died wretchedly, and their bodies were cast out into a ditch. The remains of Saint Kenelm were buried with all honor and he has since been revered as a martyr. His feast day is celebrated on July 17, the date of his translation to Winchcombe.

Factual Records of Kenelm's Life

St. Kenelm's legend appears to bear little relation to the known facts. The following can be ascertained form the wider historical record, which does not support the hagiographical accounts:

  • On the death of Offa of Mercia, his son Ecgfrith of Mercia was crowned but his reign lasted only 20 weeks as he was presumably killed in battle.
  • He was succeeded by a distant cousin, Coenwulf of Mercia, whose son was Cynehelm (Kenelm).
  • It is likely that Coenwulf 'hallowed' Cynehelm to the throne, for a letter dated 798, allegedly from Pope Leo III to "King Kenelm", names Cynehelm and gives his age as 12.
  • In 799, Cynehelm witnessed a deed of gift of land to Christ Church, Canterbury, and from 803 onwards his name appears on a variety of charters.
  • The year 811 sees no more mention of Cynehelm; this was likely his death year. All this points to Cynehelm being 25 years old when he died, not a mere 7.
  • Historical records also indicate that Cynehelm's sister, Cwenthryth (Quendryda), had entered the cloister at the time of her father's death and was the abbess of Minster-in-Thanet.

Other associations with St. Kenelm

External links

References

  • J. Amphlett, A short history of Clent (London 1890).

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